03 April 2009

Consider these lines from Byron's satirical epic Don Juan:

Alas! Could she but fully, truly know
How her great name is now throughout abhorr'd;
How eager all the earth is for the blow
Which shall lay bare her bosom to the sword;
How all the nations deem her their worst foe,
That worse than worst of foes, the once adored
False friend, who held out freedom to mankind,
And now would chain them, to the very mind;--

Would she be proud, or boast herself the free,
Who is but first of slaves? The nations are
In prison,--but the gaoler, what is he?
No less a victim to the bolt and bar.
Is the poor privilege to turn the key
Upon the captive, freedom? He's as far
From the enjoyment of the earth and air
Who watches o'er the chain, as they who wear.

The sentiment is familiar to any American liberal who has lived through the younger-Bush administration. Read further in Byron's poem and you will find a penetrating, withering critique of social and moral failings in the Britain of George IV (a dimwitted voluptuary who succeeded his famously mad father after holding the position of Prince Regent for three decades) . After the battle of Waterloo (1815) and twenty-odd years of war with France, the British people experienced severe economic shocks and new kinds of political upheaval. The rise of steam-powered textile mills put thousands of rural weavers out of a livelihood, and a sustained drop in food prices beggared the farm workers and squires who had immemorially been the backbone of England. Agitators such as William Cobbett railed against a government of fat-cat lords and financiers that remained oblivious to the suffering in the nation. One of Cobbett's primary aims was the abolition of “rotten boroughs,” seats in parliament representing once-important towns, now greatly reduced in size, that were bought and sold serially by aristocratic or nouveau-riche brokers. These seats included Old Sarum (prestigious for its proximity to Stonehenge, but endowed with no permanent inhabitants) and the amusingly named Looe in Cornwall. By contrast, booming cities in Northern England such as Manchester enjoyed no parliamentary representation whatever.

Of course, American democracy today is nothing like this. Every citizen has an equal voice, corruption is minimized, the District of Columbia may be getting statehood this year....

I think it's clear where I'm going with this, and if not, here are some interesting numbers: Did you know that a resident of Wyoming has 70 times as much voting power in the U.S. Senate as a resident of California? This is literally true if you consider the states' respective populations and that line in the Constitution prescribing two senators for every state. (At the time of its writing, the largest state, Virginia, had 19 times as many people as the smallest, Tennessee. We can cut the Founders some slack on the oligarchical stuff. )

No comments: